Where do you go when the world has become your oyster?
This is the dilemma I am faced with as I leave the teaching training college in Oxford 4 weeks after I first entered and £1000 pounds lighter, but armed with great travelling hopes and a CELTA certificate: the teaching qualification recognised around the world which will enable me to teach English as a foreign language.
Being a man riddled with indecision and certain in only one thing – that any choice I do make will undoubtedly be the wrong one – I am saved the agony of deciding which sun-drenched, paradise-beached, country I will go to to teach the natives past perfect participles when I am told of a company who will do the deciding for me.
I join a bureau in England who send teachers out to countries all over the world, specialising in schools in Europe, for one or two week bursts before moving them on to the next port of call. Air dropping teachers, if you like, for them to engage in hand to hand teaching in different schools before rendezvousing at the next front.
My mind is full of bustling metropolises and frantic continental city life when I am given my first contract: a tiny town on the Austrian/Hungarian border. A one-horse town where even the horse seems to have gone off to find a bit of life elsewhere. It is January and I am ill-prepared for the bleak Central European winter.
But the native Austrian teachers in the school I am posted at are warm and welcoming. The kids fun.
I am taken out to the town’s Heuriger – a local, dark, rustic tavern built on the side of a farm, painted with traditional scenes, where only meat from the pigs on the farm and wine made on site are served. The heuriger is only open for a week or two, until all the meat and wine is gone. Every old heuriger building in the vicinity indicates it is open by hanging a thick twinned circle of leaves and twigs on its door.
Lederhosen is worn, towering wooden boards of meat are consumed, raucous folk music is played on tubas. It’s an assault on the senses and a welcome to my life teaching abroad.
(Later in my travelling teacher’s career I would be billeted in a room above a village’s heuriger for my week’s accommodation. The overpowering smell of gamey meat from the cellars, the walls of my room covered in 50 or so skulls of various antlered animals and the hearty singing till late in the night would slightly alter the affection I held for these places).
It freezes solid and, finding myself lonely amongst the snow-shoed, pipe smoking, Austrian old men and the piled-up dirty peppered snow I entertain myself walking, or sliding, my way from one country to the other all week.
(Loneliness, as I will find out, is often the recurring state of the nomadic teacher).
In the next three years I will cross many European borders in my English teaching career, using many different means of transport, and always the journeys feel just as important as the destinations.
The excitement at the prospect of somewhere new. The thrill of arriving in an unfamiliar country, sometimes in the dead of night. The romance of a shared sleeper-train cabin, riding the tracks through Europe. Even if you are riding it with a rather dour middle aged German salesman named Hans.
My first onward commute to the next teaching position is westwards, towards Vienna.
It’s a fairly short journey, over the flat, brown, un-Austrian looking plains on the eastern edge of the country: all bare trees and shadowy rivers.
There are none of the dramatic climbs I would later get used to, as small but powerful, muscly, diesel trains would toil and grind their way up the sheer slopes of the Alps. There are none of the swooping curves of the trains rounding the huge, mirror-like lakes as in central Austria, but it gave me the perfect lesson of train travel in Germanic countries. The cliche is true, it all really does runs like clockwork.
In over a hundred train journeys I never experienced a single late train. This first OBB train I catch glides in, leaves and arrives at the imposing Vienna Sudbanhoff exactly on time.
Even trains I would later catch, from stations made up of no more than a shed perched on top of a mountain, or one carriage shunters that would require you to stick your head out of the window and shout down to the driver when you wanted to get off – or the grand sleeper trains bulleting to the Balkans and beyond – all would run to the very minute.
Great to begin with, over time it strangely started to annoy, like an over obedient child, and finally even made me pine for the raggedy, haphazard timetables of back home.
Vienna clutches you from the moment you arrive though. As the men in the heuriger sang, it really could be the most beautiful city in the world.
The old pension hotel I have been booked into sits small, snug, in amongst the grandest architecture in the centre of the city. My room is dark, old, warmed by an enormous ancient ceramic tiled stove heater.
The place is run by a faded opera singer, aged posters of her famous performances at the Vienna Koncert Haus adorn the living quarters.
She has a parrot. It’s given free rein of the place and our landlady, painted with make-up, silk dressing gown and turban on, is delighted for it to fly around, landing on patrons’ head, squawking, as she tries duetting arias together.
She would remember her long forgotten celebrated years, dancing with coloured silks round the breakfast room, as we solemnly ate dry semmel rolls in the pre-gloom before we had to depart on rickerty wooden trams to our lessons in the grey skies of one of the Vienna quarters.
As in all the countries I visit, city students are a very different proposition to those in the countryside. Streetwise, cocky, the Viennese students prove more difficult than their country cousins.
From the rich kids in the well-heeled 19th district, out towards the Vienna Woods, to the rougher immigrant areas in the south of the city, with each student I teach in the many weeks that I’m subsequently posted to this city there is none of the sweet, simple credulity as from the farm kids.
But there is still a kind of enjoyment to be had. An expeditious type of teaching that sort of goes with the harder urban surroundings.
And I was surprised that I even got ‘thank you’ Austrian chocolates from some of these city students – previous daily pains in the arse – dutifully brought in at the end of the week.
All students in Austria were generally of a high level though.
As you travelled through Europe, you quickly noticed how the standard of English changed from country to country. German 11 year olds often of a similar language standing as sniggering, gangly Italian 16 or 17 year old. The old communist countries very good, French students lagging behind.
A posting to that other beautiful capital of central Europe – Prague – sees me, feeling that I’d now got travelling through Europe sussed, blithely sprawled on the backseat of the coach as we cross the Czech border.
The inter-country trains had all been booked up, but I wasn’t worried: how can a bus ride, especially one like this, through the drowsy Bohemian landscape, be any cause for concern?
Two armed border patrol guards get on board and march through, checking papers. I am towered over menacingly, truncheons are impatiently slapped into hands with a heavy wooden thud, and I am repeatedly barked at that my passport needs to be seen. Now. (Passport at the bottom of the suitcase in the hold, of course).
It’s a reminder that travelling can be fraught as well as fantastic.
Prague, however, lives up to its well-broadcasted charms. And knows it. The city is stuffed to the sugar-pained teeth with architectural confectionery.
The Prague Oloj – the medieval astronomical clock, the oldest in the world, in the Old Town Square – smirks at the crowds thronged underneath it patiently waiting for the hourly chimes when the carved figures housed in the clock coquettishly reveal themselves and change places with one another. I feel sure the clock keeps us waiting, dumb-faced and expectant below, longer than the hour it should be announcing, just because it can.
The area that I am teaching in, however, though not far from the lauded centre, feels entirely different.
The roads are pock-marked and the buildings shabbier. The hotel I’ve been put in is a dive without a bathroom or even a proper bedroom door.
I wake one morning to find the anciently old headscarved, red-cheeked, toothless landlady sat on the end of my bed, staring and smiling blank-faced at me, rubbing my foot.
(At other times during my teaching I had variously been put up in 5 star hotels; a remote mountain refuge which required me to climb up a sheer face of rock using a rope and climbing pegs at the end of each day’s teaching; and, once, I had to spend the week sleeping in the school’s stationery cupboard).
The Prague kids are some of the most diligent, ambitious and bright I encounter in my European teaching. Each student dead-set on getting to the best university possible. They sit every day, pens poised for me to help them in this steely determination.
Teaching students who know much and want to learn even more presents a different but just as dispiriting challenge as the kids who hang from the back of their chairs and compete to see who can send globules of spit-soaked paper through a straw the furthest. In all my time on the road, I never really decide which one I dread more.
Achingly proud of their country, as all students I teach in every country I go to are, the Prague kids guide me through the history of their city, teaching me far more than I guess I ever get to teach them.
And – despite most of them being well under the drinking age – every one of them is the complete Czech beer connoisseur. I am briefed on all the best beer halls in town – each one just as much of a handsome attraction as the castle or the Charles Bridge.
Ok, so having one bag of possessions to your name and washing your clothes in the hotel room sink isn’t much fun.
Meeting people…and then saying goodbye, forever, very soon afterwards is a strange concept to grasp.
And you have to be alert: some of the people – the native teachers in the schools – who want to meet you are often lonely, bored, uninteresting people who are only after a personal, freebie, English lesson.
But you have no-ties. You’re free to swagger the roads, stubbly with goodness. Free to clatter over the rails.
Travelling with a purpose. A school at the end of the journey. A reason for sitting on the clanging train, as views of Frankfurt, Switzerland, northern Spain flattening out down to Madrid, or small industrial Italian towns outside of Rome, slide past your window.
And the fellow English teachers? What of them?
Well, the crowd you work with while teaching round the world I guess can help open your eyes even further.
‘Boozers, losers and cruisers‘ the saying goes of TEFL teachers. And you do find more than your fair share of middle-aged men still living with their mothers, or smelling suspiciously of the pub.
Or jittery women with a curiously strong faith in crystals.
There are also up-for-it recent graduates who seem to have mistakenly chosen teaching in a sleepy town near the old Iron Curtain border instead of a summer revving it up in Magaluf or trekking in Thailand or something like that.
But there are also many dedicated teachers, of all ages, especially those who manage to land good teaching jobs back at home in the UK – difficult to achieve – and I would look up to these teachers: organised, knowing their stuff.
All I ever hoped for was that the students would like me and wouldn’t find me too boring. As…well… at least dull teachers have lesson plans to back them up…
I am sent to Warsaw for what I believe will be a routine week of teaching.
On arriving at the school, centred in the middle of the city, all seems normal. The Polish teachers, however, soon meet in a huddle in the playground: whispering, plotting, planning.
Before I realise what is going on I find myself placed on a school bus, amongst a sea of strange faces, and being driven fast out of the city. Past the hard Eastern bloc architecture on the outskirts of Warsaw, on the crumbling roads and over the prodigiously wide and gorged Vistual River and out into the countryside.
I am told I am to teach my week instead in a series of huts built deep in the Polish wooded countryside.
Initially taken by the tranquil, sun-dappled, scene, I slowly learn that actually I am in an old communist camp, built for torturing dissenters.
In optimistic entrepreneurial fashion these camps have now been turned into kids’ summer retreats and so it is that I find myself here, playing jovial word games with the students while all the time wondering what horrors had happened between these very walls.
The students are blissfully unaware of course, and as the camp leaders take them on hiking trips or play boisterous sports in the woods it’s screams of enjoyment rather than torment that wake me from my post-lesson afternoon nap.
Still, I’m relieved when we return to Warsaw and the shadows take a less sinister seeming shape.
After a day walking through the fraudulent beauty of the old city centre – rebuilt to the exact same proportions after the Second World War bombing – and past the stone benches on the wide, arrowing, pastel-coloured Nowy Świat Street with inbuilt speakers playing endless looping pieces of Chopin, and past Stalin’s huge Russian wedding cake building gift to the Poles: the imposing Palace of Culture and Science, I meet up with some other teachers.
Teachers who had been around the city for their week’s teaching or other teachers who had come in on trains from some further flung European sphere – passing through, changing trains on their way to another teaching assignation, stopping here for the night.
As a darkness stacks up over Warsaw, we feel demobbed.
This gang of unfamiliar teachers, bonded only through a past week or two together teaching in some small European village somewhere, set up stall in a series of Polish beer halls and dim-lit cellars. Attracting a crowd of hangers-on: the peculiar and the curious that the travelling teacher always seem to find. The expats, the local eccentrics, the rootless colonies of people travelling through Europe.
During the evening and long night we are joined at various points by an EU diplomat, an Oriental magician and his contortionist female assistant, a troop of female Norweigan travelling ecologists, an old cowboy-hatted rocker, a rabbi, and many shady Poles intent on taking us to the next dark bars.
The drink-soaked evening ends, as far as I can recall, with us running through dark streets, our thrown shadows on the wall getting longer then shorter, footsteps echoing off the walls.
I fall. Taking down a passer-by onto the hard road with me. Her friend stands above me, my teaching friends long gone. “I demand to see your papers!” she shouts at me. “Where are your papers? You are English, yes? You have documents? Papers. We make big trouble here…”
I feel very far from home.
A less disquieting time could be on offer in Istanbul.
I arrive in the city and make straight for the Turkish baths.
Having been pulled and bent into impossible shapes and roughly lathered in every nook by large moustached men in the famous Çemberlitaş Hammam in the bustling Grand Bazaar, I float into the classroom as a figure of utter relaxation and greet my class of excitable under-10s.
An hour of battling to keep them under control in the un-air conditioned, middle-of-August, school and my serene composure has faded.
I am a heap of saturated rags at the front of the classroom. Stood underneath the sharp eyed glare of the ever-present classroom portrait of the clean-suited Atatürk.
And when, on lesson’s end, the kids all want to show their gratitude in what is, apparently, the Turkish way – hugging the teacher – I’m off, fleeing down the corridor. The hardiest of the small, round, Turkish kids still clinging to my legs as I run.
I fared better than a fellow teacher, however – one who had been unable to resist the roadside kebab stalls.
Kebab stalls that line even the most out-of-the-way side streets, nestling incongruosly next to the gold domed mosques.
Mosques that would appear suddenly, brilliantly bright in the sunlight, astonishing the brickwork around them – surprising you wherever you turned in Istanbul – looming over the dark narrow streets.
This teacher would also ostentatiously drink a glass of tap water before class, mocking us for our mealy-mouthed concern of whether, “you know, you really think that’s such a sensible idea…”
He was later to throw-up spectacularly over the first two rows of his class and was finally seen being helped away from the school, a blanket round his shoulders, doubled in agony.
Trying the local cuisine, a new dish from potentially a different country each week, is a great reward for the itinerant travelling teacher: I was offered a whole pig’s head in Slovakia and a dish made from dandelions in Slovenia – but for some teachers, sticking to baked beans lugged far over the continent’s miles at the bottom of their suitcase was the safer option.
I feel on familiar, reliably wholesome, ground back in Austria. The scrupulously on-time train contentedly pulling its way through the greenest of fields under bluest of skies, past the whitest of snow-capped mountains and the benignly ruminating Alpine cows, famous from a thousand chocolate adverts.
Does anything peculiar, I wondered, ever happen in these Austria meadows with their orangey clusters of chalet homes and onion dome – zwiebeltürme – churches?
I cheerfully disembark at a town named Gurk – having previously been amused at passing through the town of Rottenegg – and am quite suddenly taken aback to find myself confronted by a legion of grinning garden gnomes.
Row upon row of unsettling, brightly painted trolls stare back at me as I walk through the otherwise completely deserted town of traditional, old-fashioned Austrian buildings, clutching the scribbled directions to my accommodation for that week.
I raise a further eyebrow as I pass bizarre art instillations, such as the perplexing site of a 1930s car buried bonnet first at a 45 degree angle in someone’s front garden.
Still no one around. And always more and more of these gnomish painted faces.
To add to the disorientation, I find my accommodation is to be a room in a huge, imposing 12th century monastery.
Now, I’d had weeks staying in monasteries before and once you accustom yourself to avoiding the monks gliding soundlessly along the corridors and ignore the disapproving looks from the nuns, the silence and all prevailing goodness brings a certain peace and equability to your life.
Spiritual nourishment is a commodity severely lacking in the travelling teacher, having been on the road for weeks on end.
Although, I remembered as I passed the high arched stone gateway, I’d had one unfortunate incident earlier when staying with the monastic clan.
I’d been given only sketchy details as to where my point of disembarkation was to be on the rural train service: I had just been told to look out for a “Brother Markus”, the head monk of the monastery who would be on the platform waiting for me.
As the train rattled past the tiny station without stopping, the tall, frocked, quite-obvious-now Brother Markus, and I, looked with alarm at each other through a thick train glass window.
I was then a dumb spectator as I watched this cassocked man of God tearing over muddy fields, his robes pulled high over his knees, pounding frantically, racing my train to the next stop.
(Brother Markus also made the grave error of showing one of our team teaching for the week – a model representative of the ‘Boozers’ side of the TEFL fraternity – where the monks brewed and stored their own monastrey beer. The long, deep old stone cellar, previously stocked floor to ceiling with good yeasty monastery beer, was left pretty much dry, littered with empty glass flagons by the following Friday).
My time in Gurk is to provide another unique experience for me though, and not only because of the town’s unexplained, single-minded commitment to try and be Europe’s most freakishly decorated.
The school is housed high at the top of the monastery I am staying in and is solely for students who had suffered damaging and detrimental bullying in their previous schooling.
They were students that had earlier found the learning environment a tough place to be in. But rather than encountering a cowed or daunted atmosphere, the classes here in Gurk are full of fun and exuberance.
The most characterful and colourful students all supporting one another, despite the idiosyncrasies that might have alienated them in their former schools.
It is a touching and unavoidably heart-warming teaching experience to be part of.
And so it is that I find myself stood at the classroom window, high in a sun-scarfed old monastery, looking down a valley from the Alps onto a town littered with thousands of garden gnomes twinkling in the afternoon sunlight. With a cheerfully noisy class behind me, of the most sweet-natured kids you could want in a class.
And a long European train journey to my next teaching destination lying ahead.
Well it’s not the worst job I’ve ever had, I think to myself…